“One of the things that fascinates me is how happy we are living in this new [online] realm and how natural it seems to us, without us really considering it."
It should come as no surprise that, as well as being rather clever, Simon Kirby is a good talker. He is, after all, a Professor of Language Evolution – “Possibly the only one in the world,” he says, without a hint of braggadocio.
We’re chatting in his small and neat modern office in the University of Edinburgh’s Dugald Stewart building, home to the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences. To his right, a shiny iMac pings as emails deluge his inbox; to his left, a white board reveals a series of curious diagrams – evidence of Kirby’s latest extra-curricular project as part of FOUND, the Edinburgh-based art and music collective best known for 2009’s Cybraphon, an emotional, internet-connected robotic band housed in a Victorian display case.
“The drawings on the board are for a project with Dewar’s, the whisky makers,” smiles Kirby. “They’ve commissioned us to develop a device around music and whisky tasting.” The project will draw on research into synesthesia, connecting memory, taste and language through a digital interface that visually – as with all of FOUND’s work to date – gives no hint of the computational work going on beneath its skin. “It will be made out of wood and brass,” says Kirby, “and will allow people to enjoy a bespoke piece of music based around their experience of tasting the whisky.”
The patronage of Dewar’s – “a fabulous patron, we’re very happy to be working with them” – is an illustration of how far FOUND has come since 2007’s Etiquette, a sound installation for Edinburgh Sculpture Workshop. In the six years since he started working with Ziggy Campbell and Tommy Perman, Kirby has played a key role in shaping the collective’s output, in particular through his background in computing – he studied artificial intelligence and uses computational simulation extensively in his academic work.
Nerd’s-eye view of the arts
“To start with, my thinking was very much that I enjoy being a bit of a nerd and I can help out with some art projects,” he says. “Ziggy and Tommy were tackling questions I was interested in, but at the time they were using techniques that to me seemed cumbersome. I felt it could be done a lot more elegantly.”
After Etiquette – which involved moving blocks around a table, the choice of blocks and their location determining the music being played – came Three Pieces, a robotic composition housed in the Victorian Palm House of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh. But it was Cybraphon, which combined and finessed the ideas expressed in the previous pieces, that really announced FOUND’s arrival.
Launched at the Edinburgh Art Festival, it gained international attention and went on to win a Scottish BAFTA. Later this year, it will be donated to the National Museum of Scotland. “One of the things I’m really happy with is that people recognize themselves in Cybraphon,” says Kirby. “They feel warmth towards this object, because they see some of their own obsessions in the way it works – and that’s entirely the point.”
Crucial to Cybraphon is the way it channels our relationship with the online, digital sphere through a physical entity that appears entirely analogue – pre-electric, even. But rather than some kind of skeuomorphic deception, the point of all that wood and brass is to break down the fourth wall of technology, to remove the glass and metal frame that, believes Kirby, distances us from the real nature of the entirely public environment behind the screen.
“We’re so used to interacting with these hard, shiny devices that are our portal into this social world,” says Kirby. “And yet if we get a bunch of junk shop instruments and an old Victorian wardrobe, it seems to kick us into thinking about what that relationship means.”
A huge cultural shift
For Kirby, the social networks that we’re developing online, and the way these are changing the nature of communication, language and society, represent a huge cultural shift. He talks in terms of it being a change on a par with the origins of language and writing, or the creation of human civilizations. A big deal, then, and an area of interest that bridges both his artistic and academic life.
“One of the things that fascinates me is how happy we are living in this new [online] realm and how natural it seems to us, without us really considering it,” he says. “People don’t think about what it means to use this new technology in a new way, so one of the things I want to do with the art projects is just open up a little space for people to think about themselves in.”
Although Cybraphon is by far FOUND’s best-known creation, for Kirby it’s another, far less lauded piece that best addresses this disconnect between the intangibility of online and the realities of the physical world. “The piece I’m most happy with is End of Forgetting, which we made in 2011,” he says. “It’s the closest distillation of a single, clear idea.”
Influenced by a 2010 New York Times article headlined ‘The web means the end of fogetting’, the piece puts you face-to-face with the reality of publicly sharing our ‘private’ selves. “What’s really interesting about people willingly putting all this information out about themselves is they don’t think about where the delete button is,” believes Kirby. “So with End of Forgetting, we just tried to create a physical manifestation of that idea in a gallery.”
The device, which resembles a piece of sleek, minimalist furniture, does one simple thing – it remembers everything it hears. The recordings can then be accessed by turning a wooden dial. “It’s a quite unsettling piece,” says Kirby. “When people turn the dial and hear their voice back, they initially think it’s funny. But when they turn it back further and realise that it’s storing what it hears, people go a little bit quiet around it.” He laughs. “When we saw that happening, it was like, ‘Job done!’”
Exploring a new relationship
Despite having been involved in nine FOUND projects, including 2012’s #UNRAVEL with Aidan Moffat, which premiered at Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art and, most recently, Great Circle, an audio-visual iPhone app for the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games, Kirby remains unsure about the nature of his relationship with the arts. “It’s still a little bit of a novelty,” he says. “I rather like the idea that these are pieces of art, but sometimes I wonder if my attitude to it is a little bit naïve – I’m not sure what artists are meant to think about their work!”
But as science and the arts increasingly rub shoulders – in no small part due to the creative possibilities afforded by digital technologies – Kirby is clear on the benefits of a closer, meaningful relationship between the two worlds.
“What would be exciting is a better understanding between practitioners in both areas about what it is people do – that’s something that’s not well understood,” he says. “The less satisfying art/science crossover is when a scientist says, ‘Well, I’ve done this work and I’d like an artist to interpret it’. Or when an artist uses a scientist to implement some technical aspect of their work. It seems to me that where it’s really exciting is that moment of realization when you go, ‘Hang on a minute, we’re actually interested in the exact same things – they’re just different ways of engaging with questions that matter to us.”
There are clear barriers to this closer relationship, and Kirby admits that as a scientist with one foot in the arts, he has been surprised by the “amazing differences” between the worlds. From funding levels (“I write grant applications for research and it’s like taking an arts grant and adding a couple of zeros”) and the culture of peer review (“It’s all about surviving the gauntlet of people trying to tear your ideas apart – that doesn’t happen with an arts audience”), to scrutinizing outcomes (“In science, they really care about the outcome of their funding – I don’t get the same impression in the arts”), institutionally, science and the arts are still very far apart.
Not that Kirby sees these observations as any reason to retreat from his own involvement with the arts – although he confesses there is usually a point within any FOUND commission when the cry of “never again” can be heard.
“About three quarters of the way through every project, Ziggy will say he’s never going to do this again, just because of the stress of it all – it’s just awful!” he says. “It’s fun when you’re thinking about it and fun when you’re experimenting, but it’s incredibly stressful when you’re trying to deliver something that works, on time. So who knows, maybe next year I’ll just be a scientist again.”
Kirby smiles, and it’s clear that – stress or no stress – this is one science/art crossover that is likely to run and run.
For details of all FOUND’s projects to date, visit foundcollective.com
[Image: Detail of Cybraphon's emotion meter. Picture courtesy of FOUND]